Posts Tagged ‘characters’

2017-06-15 WW Lucienne Diver Last night I gave a talk at the Hart Memorial Central Library in Kissimmee, FL on Characters, Conflict and Publishing, which put a smile on my face, because my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hart, was the one I credit with sparking my love of writing and with teaching me about butt in chair and other lessons I apply to this day. The attendees were a lovely bunch of people with great questions. As always, the ad-libbing and elaboration that comes from an in-person talk goes missing from the formal, on-paper speech, but since I promised, I’ll be recreating it here on the blog in parts. (Note: if you’ve followed along on my other posts and articles, some of what’s said here will already be familiar to you.)

Part I

For some, novels begin with a concept. For others with a character or characters talking in their heads. Either way, the best thing an author can be is as contrary as possible.

If your concept starts with a conflict, think “Who would be most thrown for a loop in a situation like this? Who would be most discombobulated and out of their element?”

If it starts with a character, think “What would really challenge this person? What’s his/her own personal version of hell?”

Then, I kid you not, put them through it. Characters and conflict are at the heart of every story, inextricably intertwined.


Let’s begin with characters. Who is your protagonist? What is his or her background? What does he care about and what’s at stake for him or her in the story? This is always ALL important. There must be stakes — something the character wants or needs but that obstacles may prevent or something the protagonist desperately fears that might come to pass if events aren’t thwarted. In the best of all possible worlds, both of these things are true. We’re all bundles of hopes and fears. Your characters should be no less. The difference is that for us, hopefully, there is no opposing force (a villain or a killer, say) battling against us.

When creating characters, be unique and be creative. Do not create stereotypes, but living and breathing characters. How do you do this? Here are a few things to think about:

Background: characters should be products of their cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, in fantasy werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. People need to eat and drink, sleep, etc. Werewolves might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for red meat. Vampires aren’t really vampires without the need for blood (or energy in the case of pranic vampires). How your particular character deals with these urges and with others inside or outside their group will largely be informed by their personal, familial and societal history.

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader and may fit an archetype (hero, villain, caregiver, visionary) he or she should also be unique. Remember that even villains have a story. They may be doing the wrong things for the right reasons or responding to pains in their past or viewing everything through a lens of sociopathy, but in their minds they are likely doing what’s right or necessary. They probably don’t see themselves as evil. The same goes for your hero or heroine – most don’t see themselves that way. They’re not good or noble all the time. Think of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, who is heroic in standing up for her sister, but doesn’t set out to lead anything for the greater good, and when she takes on that role, realizes that it’s not black or white, but gray. People will die for believing in her and the symbolic role she plays.

Strength and Weaknesses: what are your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and how does the conflict challenge them to be better. Characters should not remain stagnant from the beginning of a book to the end, they should grow and change, the conflicts the wringer they must go through to achieve their final shape.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral. Give us something with which to identify.

I’ve started with character, because that’s how stories often start for me. With the Vamped series, I first had my fashionista character talking in my head, and I absolutely had to get her out. I thought to myself, “How can I torture this girl?” (Authors have to have a little of the sadist about them and then write it out in their fiction so that they can be perfectly lovely people in real life.) The answer was to make her a vampire – take away her reflection so that she’d have no way to fix her hair and make-up, take away her tanning options and make her dig her own way out of the grave, totally ruining her manicure. Have her discover that the parents buried her in that dress she literally wouldn’t be caught dead in. And then, give her a bigger, badder, even more fashionable foe to fight against.

Which brings us to conflict, which will be Part II.

nexus Before I do anything at all, I want to wish a HUGE congratulations to Ramez Naam for making the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his debut science fiction novel NEXUS!  So proud!  So well deserved!

This past Saturday, the Florida chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Orlando Public Library teamed up to present a free half-day writers workshop featuring a panel and break-out sessions with  Jessica Khoury, Jessica Brody, Amy Christine Parker, Christina Farley, Vivi Barnes, J.A. Souders and Anna Banks.   I may be a bit biased, being one of the presenters myself, but it was a great day.

A few people asked about notes for my talk, and I promised to write them up for my blog, thus here they are.  Some of the information here I grabbed from previous posts I’ve done, so there might be parts here that are familiar to some viewers!

The Publishing Process: From Gaining our Attention through Publication

Of course, it all starts with your manuscript, so I want to talk a bit about standing out from the crowd.

First of all, don’t take the easy way out.  Don’t do what’s common or expected.  Don’t do something anyone else can do.  When you’re generating ideas, it’s often a good idea to throw out your first two or three thoughts.  They come quickly and easily because they’re rote.  You’ve seen them and heard them before.  They’ve been done, many times over.  Push yourself beyond those first few ideas.  Challenge yourself.

Come up with something unique, whether it be your character or storyline…or better yet both.  Just as you don’t want your storyline to be predictable or cookie-cutter, you don’t want to people your novel with stereotypes or cardboard characters.  You should know more about your people than ever make it onto the page.  If someone were to ask their favorite ice cream or how long they take in the bathroom, you should be able to answer without thought.

Don’t shy away from tension or true danger.  Your reader needs to truly fear for the emotional or physical wellbeing of your character.  Torture your characters/torture your reader.  It sounds cruel, but it’s honest.  Remember that in every scene there should be something at stake.

What often takes a novel from okay to amazing is the voice.  Your voice, your point of view character, is the lens through which we see the world.  Think of it this way—if you have two children and both told you about the same fight, would it sound the same?  No, it would have a slant…about who was at fault, who started things, who did what to whom.  Some details would make it in and others would be left out.  What words would be used?  Would they be uttered in anger?  In a rush, tumbling over each other?  What would the body language be?  Whoever’s POV we’re in should be distinctive and unique and they should have an angle on things. Everyone has an angle.  (Not necessarily a bad angle.  Someone might give too many chances or see the best in everyone rather than the worst, but his/her personality and experiences will lead him or her to treat an event or individual in a certain way.)

Okay, so we’ve got great stories and great characters.  What else?  Well, great writing, of course.  Your first draft is often just that…drafty.  It should never be the product that goes out the door.  Amy Christine Parker and I did a vlog for YA Rebels on Revisions, which I’ll post below, but here are some quick notes based on beginning mistakes I see time and again:

-Do your best to rid your manuscript of waffle words, like “just,” “only,” “seemed to”.  Also, “she decided,” “he thought,” “she mused”…that sort of thing. Thought tags like this are the equivalent of said-bookisms in dialogue.  (For example: “I hate you!” she shouted angrily.)  Some things are understood and telling them to us is redundant.  Show, don’t tell.  This will make your writing much more immediate.

-Avoid passive voice. For example: Passive: “The door opened to admit her;” Active: “Benny slammed the door open at her knock, shocking her back a step…”  As you can tell, the second option is much more effective.

-Go back over emotional scenes particularly.  Chances are you shied away from the true depth and these need to be further explored now that the full context surrounds them.

-Make sure you have sensory and physiological details where appropriate.  For example, if someone’s running for his/her life or being kissed for the first time, the body will react.  Blood flow will increase or rush to certain parts of the body.  Breathing will change…

-Make sure every scene is told in the right point of view, that of the participant, not the observer.

-If you’ve jigged when you should have jogged and gone down the wrong path with your novel, now is the chance to change that.  You’ll hear many professional writers say that they write two or three books for every one published.  That’s because of how much they throw out and start again or how much is rewritten beyond recognition.  I won’t say that first-drafting is easier, but revisions are where the real work comes in!  (At least for me.)

-Make sure that you’ve revised your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  Then put it away for a few weeks to a month and look again with fresh eyes.  Readers and critique partners are invaluable in this process as well, because they don’t know what you meant to put down on the page.  They only know what’s there, and they can help you discover sections that came out differently than intended or plot points that didn’t come through at all.

-Mantra: Thou shalt send out no manuscript before it’s time.

Next, I discussed the querying process, what an agent does and what a publishing house does for you.  Since I’ve covered these things in previous posts, here are those links:

Finding an Agent

The Role of Agents in the Modern Publishing Landcape

Querying, Part 1

Querying, Part 2

Querying, Part 3

What a Publisher Does (aka It Takes a Village)

Other links you might find helpful that I offered in a hand-out:

My blog

My author website

Knight Agency website

TKA submission guidelines

Association of Authors’ Representatives

The SFWA Writer Beware site

Preditors & Editors



Defining Moments


YA Rebels vlog on Revisions:

Viewpoint Characters
Background: a character should be a product of the sum of his cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. Werewolves, for example might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for rarer meat or any number of things depending on the rules you establish for your world. How your particular character deals with these urges or with others inside or outside the group or life in general will largely be informed by their personal and familial history.

Because urban fantasy is so hot and snarky, sassy characters are in, I see far too many submissions in which the heroine, say, is all punchy and prickly for no particular reason. What makes your character the way she is?

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader, he or she should also be unique. Even if you’ve chosen something that’s fairly common…let’s use a vampire here…it should not be your standard vampire. While I don’t necessarily want my vampires to sparkle in the sunlight, Stephenie Meyer took the idea of vampires as the ultimate preditors with everything meant to draw prey to them and ran with it. Try to give your hero or heroine a different twist.

Strength, Weaknesses and Quirks: a real character, like a real person, will have all these things. They’ll have fears, loves, dislikes, passions, quirks, etc. No character should be a type. No person is entirely consistent or sweet or evil or any one single thing. Everybody has something about themselves that it would surprise others to know.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral, although this can sometimes make a novel stand out. I’m thinking here of Jaye Wells’ assassin heroine in Red-Headed Stepchild, in which the voice carries you through. Example, an excerpt from the opening:

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

He said nothing, just stood off behind a thicket of trees waiting for me to acknowledge him. Despite his silence, I could feel hot waves of disapproval flying in my direction.

At last, the final scoop of earth fell onto the grave. Stalling, I leaned on the shovel handle and restored order to my hair. Next I brushed flecks of dirt from my cashmere sweater. Not the first choice of digging attire for some, but I always believed manual labor was no excuse for sloppiness. Besides, the sweater was black, so it went well with the haphazard funerary rites.

Choosing a POV Character
I’ve avoided saying “hero” or “heroine” here because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first. Here are some things to consider:

Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world & or is the reader becoming aware along with them? Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that they begin at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader. Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series. Her main character is more or less an everyman. Everywoman anyway. She’s a graduate student. Exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress…until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete the change. In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead. It’s political and practically feudal in its code…learnable in a multi-volume Canon to which she does not subject her readers…only her poor character. However, it’s also intriguing simply to launch your reader into the world, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, right from the first line, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.” Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional. This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented. The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. It’s fascinating, because you’re constantly analyzing what’s said to try to get at the true person behind the narrative. In fact, to me the true brilliance of the book is the psychology behind it.

Is this someone you can torture: I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience. Part of the reason that you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate. I’m completely serious here. If your character is too much like you or too beloved, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict. You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build. I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options. No reflection, now way to fix her hair and make up…her own personal version of hell. Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well. But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….

Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person. In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance. They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day. Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice.

What POV will best suit your character’s voice. There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers. That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived. It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.

The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular, especially in urban fantasy these days. It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives. Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader. A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves. Also, one person can’t ever truly know what another is thinking, so while you can give us cues in dialogue, expression and body language, you don’t get to put us into someone else’s head.

Third person is perhaps the most commonly used. This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break. There are caveats here too. If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following. Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.
Populating your world
Antagonists: Peter Watts’s Blindsight, which I referenced earlier, proves that there doesn’t necessarily have to be an antagonist, although there does have to be a threat. In his novel, it’s our own complete inability to even conceive of the alien species we encounter and discover how to safely interact. However, most novels need an antagonist, a visible, fightable enemy and someone who’s more than a match for the hero or heroine so that we truly believe the danger and are kept on the edge of our seats over the outcome of all conflicts. The antagonist should not be a cartoon personification of evil, but should have real motivations, whether they be selfish, sociopathic, misguided, vengeful or whathaveyou. Often, the most intriguing characters are those who are at war with themselves and the most interesting novels are those that make the reader really think about their perceptions and preconceived notions. Carol Berg plays around quite a bit with the perceptions of good and evil in her worlds.

Secondary characters: Your secondary characters should have personas and voices all their own, not just live and breathe to ask questions that allow exposition to be delivered in dialogue. But be careful that they don’t run away with the story, which is especially likely when it comes to the comic relief. Secondary characters come in all shapes and sizes from love interests, to friends to family and pint-sized piskies. Whatever shape they come in should not resemble cardboard.

Creatures: Be certain to make your creatures your own, even if you draw on an established mythos. If an elf, a human and a dwarf walk into a bar, chances are you have a D&D adventure and not a truly unique novel on your hands…unless you’ve done something particularly tricky with your world. For example, Rob Thurman’s “elves” are so far from our conception of the Fair Folk that there’s no recognizing them. In fact, Cal Leandros, the hero of her bestselling series, is half auphe or, as he’s labeled himself, “half-human, half-monster, all attitude” and while she has trolls and vampires and one unabashedly Pan-sexual Robin Goodfellow, she’s fleshed them out to the point where they’re truly original.

Something else to think about: you obviously can’t use all creatures from all traditions or gods from each pantheon…what a crowded novel that would be! How do you explain those you bring in without seeming to shun all the others? I can’t answer that for each author, but in my upcoming novel, Bad Blood, I used my knowledge of comparative religion to add in little things here and there letting readers know that my Greek gods have also been other things to other people. For example, Hermes correlates not only to Mercury in the Roman pantheon, but to Iemisch from South America, Loki of Norse mythology, Coyote and Spider from Native American cultures and all the other trickster gods.

I enjoy using myth and legend, but it’s often tricky, because readers will have certain expectations based on the versions of stories that they’ve read. For the old myths, which weren’t written down until long after the ancient world had played its version of telephone with them, there are multiple variations. The good news is that you can choose the one which works best for your purposes. The bad news is that not everyone will like your interpretation.

Now, I’ve harped on unique and original, and you can, of course, create your own creatures out of whole cloth. The trick will then be in building the image without making reference to any known animal living or dead and still making it as vivid for the reader as something they can readily envision.
The balance of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: what makes it personal for your protagonists? What invests the characters invest the reader. Maybe it’s danger to themselves or a loved one or the need to clear someone’s name. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes the hero or heroine, and thus the reader, who’s approaching things from that perspective, care very deeply.

Edmund R. Schubert in Writing Magical Words writes about the importance of having your character want something. He says “the difference between good, publishable fiction, and pretty, wandering words that no one cares about is determined by whether or not the writer can create a sense of expectations in the reader and then meet those expectations. “Wanting” is just the simplest way of setting that sense of expectation in motion. Part of your conflict in a story, at the personal level, is that something is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving what it is that he or she wants.

External: what is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

As you can all see, I’ve gone a bit beyond worldbuilding with this whole workshop, but everything ties together like a tightly woven tapestry to give you a beautiful finished product.

Sarah Nicolas is kind enough to be hosting me today over at YA Topia…and I’m ornery enough to have done a Naughty & Nice list for my characters.  Guess which I have more of.  Oh go on, guess!

John Hartness is…well, I’m just going to say it…he’s a character.  No, wait, I’m thinking CHARACTER should be in all caps, maybe even in bold.  If you’ve ever met him in person or sat down with him for a drink, maybe for one of his Literate Liquors talks, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  So I’m pleased to have him here talking about his “What If?” method of plotting.  But before I let John run away with my blog – and he will – I want to note one more quick thing: New York Times bestseller Chloe Neill is running some awesome contests in celebration of Halloween and her upcoming Chicagoland Vampires novel HOUSE RULES that you might want to get in on.  Check them out here.

And now, take it away, John.

“What If?” Questions and Plot/Character Development 

Hey y’all, I’m John G. Hartness, author of the Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books and creator of the self-published super-series Bubba the Monster Hunter. Go buy my stuff, particularly the Black Knight Omnibus, which features three full-length novels in a revised, “author’s preferred” format with a badass cover. It’ll give you clear skin, clear up cellulite, lower taxes and take care of that embarrassing rash you haven’t told your doctor about.

Not really, but it might make you laugh.

I promise that’ll be the last (and most shameless) plug of the post, but I figured I’d go ahead and get it out of the way now. Lucienne asked me to join her “Men of Urban Fantasy” pinup calendar, so I figured I’d talk a little about how I build characters and plots.

You see, I’m a redneck. I grew up in a little bend in the road called Bullock Creek, SC. Don’t bother going to Google Maps for that one, because all you’ll figure out is that it’s an hour from Charlotte, and an hour and a half from Columbia, and close to a bunch of other stuff you’ve never heard of. As a redneck, we sit around a lot tellin’ stories.

We’ll sit on the front porch watching the heat lightning on an August afternoon, right about that dusky time of day when the first brave fireflies are flickering to life, and tell stories. We’ll sit on the tailgate of the pickup truck drinking cheap whiskey and Coke out of a Solo cup at the end of a long day of work watching the sun go down while the sweat finally dries on the back of our necks, and tell stories. We’ll sit on the banks of a little pond that might have three fish in the whole thing, smell of honeysuckle wafting through the air like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, and tell stories.

You get the picture? Well, all those stories start one of two ways. They either begin with “You ain’t gonna believe this shit!” Which means the story is 100% true. Or they begin with “What if?” Which means they might be as much as 20% true.

Well, that’s kinda where I get my plots and my characters from. They’re almost all “What if?” questions. With The Black Knight Chronicles, I started from the question of “What if there were a couple of uber-nerd vampires that were the good guys?” I had been reading some huge best-selling vampire books, and all the vampires were sexy. And they were all either badasses or tortured souls. So I wondered “what if the given circumstances were skewed, just a little?” What resulted was a series of books with funny characters that (I hope) make monsters more relatable to normal people.

With Bubba the Monster Hunter I thought “What if a psychotic cupid got loose in a nursing home?” Actually the first question was probably more like “what if the nursing home got Viagra mixed up with the blood pressure pills?” But you get the general idea.

“What if” questions are fun. They open you up to some wild flights of fancy, and can send you down some plotline rabbit holes if you’re not careful. That’s one reason why I’m a plotter, not a pantser. If I were a writer who could just “wing it” through the plot of my books, my love for “what if” questions could send me off on tangents that I might never recover from. So I have to exercise discipline in my exploration. I only allow myself to think about “what if”s when I’m beginning the book, working on the outline, or when I get stuck.

And that last bit is where “what if” questions can be really helpful, because if you’ve trained yourself to do a certain amount of brainstorming already, kicking into that mode when you’re stuck is a lot easier. And you’ve probably got a ton of crazy ideas all rolling around in your head just looking for a chance to get out, since you’ve been suppressing them since the outline!

So there’s a little tip from me on where I get plot and character ideas. I ask myself “What if?” And whenever I think of something else crazy I want to try, I ask myself “Why not?” It’s all worked out pretty well so far! See y’all in the funny papers!


John G. Hartness is a writer, actor, teacher, lighting designer, theatre consultant, raconteur, knight-errant, Panthers fan and drunkard from Charlotte, NC. Part of the Magical Words blogging team, he can also be found online at or @johnhartness on Twitter. He finds himself far too amusing for his own good.

I’m very pleased to continue the Men of Urban Fantasy theme with author James A. Burton.  His novels are incredibly character driven, with lush language and, as he discusses, more than your typical heroes and heroines.

Heroes? by James A. Burton (aka James A. Hetley)

Lucienne suggested that I write something about non-traditional heroes and heroines, those being the sort I’ve written in POWERS (as by James A. Burton) and my earlier novels.  And my first thought was, “I don’t write heroes.”  What I write, what I try to write, are people I can respect.  To do that, I don’t start out with Athena springing fully-armed from the forehead of Zeus.  I have to meet the characters and get to know them, walk around with them — let them grow into people.  Some writers outline and know the story before they begin writing.  I find out the story as I write it.

My first published novels, THE SUMMER COUNTRY and THE WINTER OAK, began with a scared woman walking through a winter storm at midnight.  I had to find out who Maureen was, why she was scared, what she would do about it, the same way you find out things about a “real” person you’ve just met.  As I wrote her story, I watched how she reacted to the world, what she did when things happened.  She turned into a person rather than a character after the first twenty or thirty thousand words, and from there on, she told me what happened next.

POWERS began with another abstract character dealing with a problem, Albert Johansson faced with a demon materializing on the other side of the kitchen table, and then I found out who Al was by writing him reacting to and solving that problem.

He was a man faced with a demon, a man with certain skills and failings.  He had to be a loner by the setting, meaning he had to have a reason to live quietly alone, a reason readers could respect.  He wasn’t antisocial, he didn’t have psychological or physical problems with social interaction, so the reason developed into the problems of a man who doesn’t die and how that kind of man would fit into modern life.  He can’t form relationships, he can’t stay in any place too long, he can’t be any kind of public person, because humans age and die.  He doesn’t.  And people notice things like that.  Modern governments notice things like that.

Al asks, verbatim in that first chapter, “Why me?”  The demon has to answer that, which means I had to answer it before I could write it.  It isn’t the problem that the demon poses, it’s the question behind that and the one still deeper down.  Al turns out to be unique, not just a supremely talented smith with senses that go beyond human sight and smell and hearing.

Then, solving that problem, I had to have him collide with an antagonist, since stories require tension.  The demon seemed too abstract, an outside force with powers and motives neither Al nor I could really understand.  But an arson detective, another person with motives and shortcomings and secrets of her own — there I have another character I could respect.  So Mel entered the story, Melissa el Hajj, and just by naming her and describing her through Al’s eyes, she has a background.  She has a story of her own, and it goes way back because of the things she saw and figured out about Al that no normal human would see or understand.  “Antagonist” doesn’t have to mean “villain” or “enemy”, so I started with Mel . . . ambivalent.  Al tweaks her curiosity, the first new thing that has crossed her path in several hundred years.  Al fears her, and I had to give him reason for that fear.  He sees her as deadly and enigmatic, as swift and merciless as the killer mountain winds, as vengeful and long-memoried as the Asian hill-tribes of her people.

Somewhere in all this they turned into gods — very minor gods you’ve never heard of — but I’ve tried to keep them people rather than heroes.  They have powers, minor powers in narrow areas.  They have strengths and weaknesses and blind spots.  They have obligations, things they cannot or will not do because of who they are.  They can be hurt, hurt in ways that make death look like the easy way out.

Traditional heroes are ideals.  If heroes have weaknesses, those become mythic in themselves, like Achilles’ heel.  Heroes don’t have second thoughts and sobbing nightmares over past mistakes, like Mel.  Heroes aren’t afraid all the time, like Maureen in THE SUMMER COUNTRY.  Al’s only heroic attribute is that he never quits.  Real-life heroes turn out to be complex people when you get to know them.  I try to bring that to my stories.

(Note: THE SUMMER COUNTRY is currently just $.99 for Nook and Kindle, if you want to give his work a try!)

I’m very excited to present to you all my “Men of Urban Fantasy” week here on the blog.  Urban (aka contemporary) fantasy is so female dominated, that I thought it was high time for me to shine a light on some of the amazing men on the scene and their more-than-memorable protagonists.  I’m thrilled to kick off the week with James R. Tuck, author of the Deacon Chalk series for Kensington (BLOOD AND BULLETS, BLOOD AND SILVER and BLOOD AND MAGIC, forthcoming).


Before I was a writer of urban fantasy I was a reader of urban fantasy. Some of my favorites are Lilith Saintcrow’s Jill Kismet series, Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. My bookshelves are full of urban fantasy books that have one thing in common.

They feature kick ass women characters.

Now all the series are different, the writers all bringing fresh takes to the wide world of urban fantasy, but they have common things about them and the main one is that they feature women as the lead character. It’s become a thing for people outside the genre to point at and use to easily categorize books.

“Oh, it’s a modern day world with monsters and a heroine that wears leather pants and has a gun? It’s urban fantasy.”

And that book would be. (and I would totally read it)

But, there is a growing number of us guys who are joining in the ranks of urban fantasy and bringing something a bit different.

We’re writing men as the lead characters.

Of course this brings a different take on the genre. When I read urban fantasy I think about what the characters go through. I examine it and in my head I think about how someone who fights monsters would be in normal life. Like how does someone who just got done shooting a pack of vampires in the face handle a fender bender, or simply ordering a coffee at a busy Starbucks? I think monster hunters would be pretty traumatized people. They would suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a way that is different even from combat soldiers. They would have all the violence to process that a combat soldier would, but it would be a lot closer in nature. I think there has to be a difference between shooting an enemy combatant and killing them with a sword or a stake through the heart. And you have to add in the fact that they would be dealing with things that were not human, which would add to the level of stress. It would affect them differently.

In my books every character but one suffers from some form of PTSD.

The women in my book handle it differently than the men and the non human’s deal with it differently than the humans. Kat’s past (losing her sister to vampires and being tortured by one) makes her burn with an almighty hatred for anything vampire. She is obsessed with keeping tabs on all of them so that the main character Deacon Chalk can hunt them down. She also never goes anywhere without a cross.

Father Mulcahy deals with his past by drinking, chain smoking, being a Catholic priest, and helping Deacon with his war on monsters. You haven’t learned what happened to him before the books started, but it’s a great story. He has a truly dark history and has witnessed and done some terrible things that drove him into the arms of the Church.

Larson’s past with monsters fills him with rage.

Charlotte the Were-spider (yes, you read that right) seems more adjusted due to her supernatural nature, but she’s not. What she went through in book one is what makes her get involved in book two, and what happens to her in book two will affect her, and her relationship with Deacon, for a long time. She seems pretty well adjusted, but she’s not.

And finally the main man Deacon Chalk. Talk about a study in PTSD. Deacon is one seriously damaged character and the books I write are an exploration of that. In book one we meet Deacon five years after his family was killed by monsters and for five years his coping mechanism for his grief has been to kill every monster he can find. He hasn’t really healed at all. This is a very guy way of dealing with grief and pain. Shove it aside and get on with work. It’s something we do. It’s not that men don’t have emotions, we have them hardcore, but our whole life has been skewed by our culture that we have responsibility before we have feelings. That is why we men push our emotions aside. Part of it is a coping mechanism, part of it is the way we are raised.

That is exactly how Deacon is. He thinks he’s doing alright, but he’s not, and that doesn’t begin to change until he meets Tiff, the one person in the Deaconverse who has NOT been traumatized by monsters.

Tiff likes Deacon and wants to be with him, but because he still loves his dead wife and he’s completely damaged, they do NOT have the instantaneous BOOM! Romance of love at first sight. It takes a while, months, before he is ready to even take the first step. He has work to do, a mission driven by vengeance AND a death wish, and hard feelings that make it near impossible for him to move past the loss of his family to allow someone in his heart. Plus, his lifestyle of monster hunting has made him nearly unfit for normal society. He’s almost completely nocturnal, carries more guns than a small army, and his first reaction to almost any situation is violence. That’s great for hunting a rogue pack of predator lycanthropes, not so great for ordering a cheeseburger at McDonalds.

For me writing the Deacon Chalk series is an exploration of being a certain kind of man. We all love the alpha male character and what I am writing is how that alpha male would react to being shoved into a world of monsters. Sometimes he comes off a bit cold, sometimes a lot cocky, but those are all coping mechanisms for his trauma. Not just the loss of his family, but the things he has to do in his role as a monster hunter. Like a combat soldier, Deacon puts himself between any human, even lowlife, despicable ones, and a monster. He holds that line for humanity, no matter the cost. In the Deaconverse the monsters are truly monstrous and do horrible things so that cost is just as terrible.

But Deacon is a man, and a man has responsibilities.

Even if it kills him.

Kalayna Price had me at “hello.”  Seriously, the opening of the Alex Craft series is like a textbook example of how to hook readers right out of the gate.  Check it:

The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him.  As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five a tthe time, so he eventually forgave me.  Some days I wished he hadn’t—particularly when we crossed paths on the job.  — from GRAVE WITCH

Since then she’s continued to impress me with her voice, her characters and, yes, her wicked streak.  I hope you’ll enjoy her guest blog and that you’ll leave a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of one of her books.  The latest, GRAVE MEMORY, will release on Tuesday, July 3rd!


Okay, but it’s going to cost you.

In life most of us avoid conflict. We don’t necessarily take the easy path, but we’d rather avoid the old Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The smoother ride is preferred.

In fiction, the opposite is true.

Characters are put through the wringer and given two bad paths to choose from. Why? Not because the writers are evil overloads who wish to torture their unsuspecting characters, but because conflict creates interest and forces character growth. A story in which everything went well for the character and around each turn something even better happened would be like sitting down and tackling an entire triple chocolate cheesecake. The first couple bites might be decadent, but it would get sickening fast. No fun.

So we make it hard for our characters. We give them no good place to turn. We make every action count and each one come at a cost.  This cost may be major or minor and might be physical or emotional, but it has to hold a proportional amount of weight in comparison with what is at stake. It also has to affect to story, not just be thrown in there to create false conflict. If the cost is easily sidestepped or has no bearing on the story, it isn’t good conflict, and the reader probably won’t care.

How do you find this cost? Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen in the situation you are dealing with (or make a list of worse-case scenarios) and then find a compelling reason why the character has no other choice but take that route. Note the words “compelling” and “no other choice.” If the reader is sitting in their seat thinking, “Why didn’t the character just . . . “ the writer hasn’t done their job well and the suspension of belief is broken.

Of course, all these hard choices and agonizing decisions pay off in the end. They force the character grow so that in the final challenge, they can succeed—at least partially.  Depending on your genre, boy might get girl, the killer found, the bad guy foiled, and/or the world saved. For now.

Hey, we all like our cake at the end, right?


Check out Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft novels (GRAVE WITCH, GRAVE DANCE and GRAVE MEMORY) and Haven series on her website.  Follow her on Twitter.